Lebanon's new resolve on Palestinian issue

The PLO opens a new office in Beirut Monday ahead of talks targeting armed groups, refugee conditions.

After decades of uneasy relations, Lebanon and its Palestinian population are set to embark on a ground-breaking dialogue to improve conditions in the Palestinian refugee camps and curb uncontrolled armed groups.

For Ibrahim Khalil, that could mean an end to the knee-deep sewage that pours into his home during winter rains.

"Our homes are all damp and humid and not fit to live in. When it rains, my home is flooded with sewage because the drains can't take it. And this is the good part of the camp," says the Palestinian resident of this squalid refugee camp on the outskirts of the southern Lebanese town of Sidon.

By working with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which reopens its Beirut office Monday, to ameliorate the plight of refugees like Mr. Khalil, Lebanon hopes to offer Palestinians greater job opportunities and better living conditions to weaken the lure of the many armed Palestinian factions operating in the camps. Though Beirut has long been under international pressure to disarm the groups, the imminent negotiations - regarded as a key step in allaying that pressure - signal a change in how the government plans to tackle the problem.

"This is a major turning point," says Sultan Abul Aynayn, the head of the Fatah movement in Lebanon. "The Lebanese have moved from treating the Palestinians as a security concern to a humanitarian concern."

Last October, the government announced it intended to launch full negotiations with the Palestinian factions in Lebanon, a decision spurred in part by international pressure on Lebanon to fulfill United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. The resolution calls for the dismantling of all "Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias," a reference to Lebanon's Shiite Hizbullah organization and armed Palestinian groups. Disarming Palestinian groups is considered an easier task than disarming the powerful Hizbullah.

The reopening Monday of the PLO's Beirut office, which was shut down during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, will lead to the formation of a Palestinian delegation comprising representatives of all the factions present in Lebanon - some of whom are at odds with one another - to begin talks with the Lebanese government.

A key issue will be addressing the humanitarian needs and civil rights of Palestinian refugees, who are banned from all but the most menial of jobs - making the frustrated, unemployed youths ripe for recruitment into armed factions.

"I can't understand why a Palestinian engineer has to work as a laborer," says Abul Aynayn. "It's miserable and shameful. God created us all the same, why can't we get the same services?"

In March, a Lebanese ministerial delegation paid an unprecedented visit to three Palestinian refugee camps to assess humanitarian needs. There are more than 350,000 refugees in the country, living in a dozen refugee camps scattered around the country, most of them surrounded by Lebanese troops and lying outside the jurisdiction of the Lebanese government. The largest is Ain al-Hilweh, a mostly lawless square-mile slum of gloomy passageways crammed with 70,000 refugees.

"I was really shocked at what I saw," says Khalil Makkawi, the head of the Lebanese delegation and a former ambassador to the UN. "The conditions are impossible, subhuman."

Urgently required infrastructure work in the camps is estimated at $40 million to $50 million, funds that Lebanon's cash-strapped government insists come from the international community.

"We have raised the issue with donor countries and told them we have a window of opportunity here," says Mr. Makkawi. "In helping the Palestinians, we will be helping improve security and peace in Lebanon. If they are working and earning, they will have no time for militias. It is desperate people who do foolish things."

But not all Palestinian groups are willing to hand over their weapons. Some pro-Syrian factions, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) and Fatah Intifada, man several military outposts in the Bekaa Valley. The bases have been surrounded by Lebanese troops since October when a civilian employed by the Army was shot dead near a PFLP-GC position.

"We have to keep our weapons to keep our rights," says Anwar Raja, PFLP-GC chief in Lebanon. "Praying in a church or a mosque is not going to bring us back to Palestine."

An intermittent roundtable dialogue between Lebanon's top leaders, under way since March, has agreed that the Palestinian military outposts should be dismantled within six months. The Lebanese government hopes that the negotiations with the Palestinian delegation will resolve the issue peacefully, but there is concern that the talks could be complicated by current tensions between Beirut and Damascus. The PFLP-GC is a close ally of Syria which analysts say gives Damascus an influential role in the outcome of the Lebanese-Palestinian talks.

One thing seems certain though: neither Lebanon nor the Palestinians have any plans for the refugees to settle in Lebanon, where the refugees make up about 10 percent of the population. The one issue on which there is unanimity across Lebanon's sectarian divide is to reject permanently settling the mainly Sunni Palestinians in Lebanon, a move which could upset Lebanon's unique power-sharing system based on sectarian quotas.

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